NCAA Bracket 2019: The Secret Formula for Picking a Winner

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistMarch 19, 2019

NCAA Bracket 2019: The Secret Formula for Picking a Winner

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    In an episode of NBC's The Office, rather than accept $100 as a wedding gift from Ryan Howard, Pam Beesly instead writes Ryan a check for $50 to cover the broker fee on what he tells her is a sure gamble. The investment? Ryan "has an algorithm to determine the winner of any given college basketball game!" 

    If only filling out our March Madness brackets were as simple as Ryan promises it could be. Alas, there is no algorithm to determine the outcomes of the NCAA men's basketball tournament games—and isn't that why we watch? The thrill of seeing a No. 16-seeded team like the UMBC Retrievers knock off the top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers in the opening weekend is what makes March so special. 

    Of course, it feels a little less special if you had Virginia winning the whole thing. And while we can't promise you a surefire formula for filling out a winning bracket every time, we have studied the data and discovered the trends that repeat themselves year after year. Those rules to live by are what follow. 

    This secret formula for filling out your bracket may not be completely foolproof...but it just might win you the whole thing. And we won't even charge you a $50 broker fee. 

Choose Your Final Four First

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    If you start filling out your bracket from the first round and work your way in toward the championship, you'll inevitably get caught up in the momentum of advancing certain high seeds. Before you know it, you'll have a Final Four by default. But will it reflect the four teams you really want there?

    The smartest way to fill out your bracket may be to choose the four teams you know objectively—through data and season performance—have the best chance of making it to the Final Four and plugging them in first and then working backward to the first round.

    That way, you won't get locked into advancing No. 1 Virginia or No. 2 Tennessee without first considering that under head coaches Tony Bennett and Rick Barnes, respectively, neither team has made it to a Final Four.

    In essence, what we're suggesting here is to consider which team you think is the strongest in each region (based on KenPom.com rankings, NET rankings, historical trends or your own eyeballs) and plug them into your Final Four—then construct the rest of your bracket around them. 

    Here are the numbers of each seed's Final Four appearances dating back to 1985, when the tournament expanded to 64 teams, via NCAA.com. As you'll see, No. 2, 3 and 4 seeds are still in play for the Final Four, especially if those teams fit the rest of the rules we'll go over. 

    • No. 1: 56 
    • No. 2: 28
    • No. 3: 16
    • No. 4: 13
    • No. 5: 6
    • No. 6: 3
    • No. 7: 3
    • No. 8: 5
    • No. 9: 1
    • No. 10: 1
    • No. 11: 4
    • No. 12: 0
    • No. 13: 0
    • No. 14: 0
    • No. 15: 0
    • No. 16: 0

    The success of those No. 1 seeds sure seems convincing, doesn't it? Well, keep reading for why you want to avoid going all-in on top seeds in the Final Four. 

Do Not Choose All Four No. 1 Seeds for Your Final Four

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    As we mentioned previously, No. 1 seeds have advanced to the Final Four 56 times since 1985, the greatest frequency of any seed. 

    But that doesn't mean you should take all four of them in your Final Four.

    According to Bill Bender of the Sporting News, while 61 percent of Final Four teams since 1985 have been seeded No. 1 or No. 2, in the last six years we've seen three No. 7 seeds (Connecticut in 2014, Michigan State in 2015, South Carolina in 2017), No. 9 Wichita State in 2013, No. 10 Syracuse in 2016 and No. 11 Loyola-Chicago in 2018 advance to the Final Four. 

    Now, should you pick a No. 11 seed over a No. 2 seed to make your Final Four? Most likely not. But just know there is a proven track record of teams outside of the top four overall seeds advancing to this round.

    Meanwhile, all four No. 1 seeds appeared in the Final Four for the first time in NCAA history in 2008, and they haven't done it again since. In fact, three No. 1 seeds have appeared in the Final Four only five times since 1985. 

Keep Cinderellas Out of Your Final Four

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    In case you haven't gotten the point by now, your Final Four selections are the key to your entire bracket. 

    Just as picking all four No. 1 seeds in your Final Four isn't a time-proven strategy, neither is carrying a Cinderella all the way to this stage. While the feel-good story of No. 11 Loyola-Chicago last year is still fresh in everyone's minds, remember that the Ramblers were the exception, not the rule.

    Again, to remind you, 61 percent of Final Four teams since 1985 have been seeded No. 1 or No. 2. Cinderella has a place in your bracket all the way up to the Sweet 16, where lower seeds have been thriving more and more in recent years. Per The Ringer's Zach Kram, the average sum of Sweet 16 seeds from 2002 to '09 was 66.0, compared to 75.4 from 2010 to '18. 

    But teams that make the Final Four are usually top-two seeds and occasionally seeded third (16 since 1985) and fourth (13 since 1985). If you feel compelled to advance a lower seed to your Final Four, though, consider a No. 5 or a No. 8, which have made it to that stage six and five times, respectively, since 1985, higher than any other seeds lower than No. 4, per the NCAA

No. 12 Upsets Are Your Best Bet

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    If you're on the hunt for upsets in the early rounds, No. 12 seeds are still your most dependable bet. 

    According to the NCAA, in 29 of the last 34 years, a No. 12 seed has won at least one first-round game. Their record against No. 5 seeds in that span is 47-89.

    Now, a No. 12 seed has never made it to the Final Four, so don't get too cute with your upset picks. But if you're looking for early upsets, 12 over 5 is where it's at. If you want to do it again in the second round, do so at your own risk; according to the NCAA, more than 50 percent of the No. 12 seeds who won in the first round failed to advance past the second round.

    However, 20 of them went to the Sweet 16.

    This year, the 12th seeds are Murray State in the West Region, Oregon in the South, Liberty in the East and New Mexico State in the Midwest. Respectively, they'll face fifth seeds Marquette, Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn. 

The National Champion Will Most Likely Be a No. 1 Seed

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    Even up until the Final Four, you can get creative with your picks. As we've gone over, in recent years, lower seeds have had success making it deep, with three No. 7 seeds, a No. 9 seed, a No. 10 and No. 11 making it to the semifinals of the last six NCAA tournaments. 

    However, when you make your picks for the championship game, it's time to buckle down and get serious. No more playing around.

    When you're selecting the two teams that will duke it out for the title, keep in mind that every champion since 1999 has been a top-three seed, save for No. 7 Connecticut in 2014. In that span, we've seen 14 No. 1-seeded national champions, two No. 2 seeds and three No. 3 seeds. 

    Though they may cause you to feud with your co-workers and lose hard-earned money, March Madness brackets are simple. Glory in March comes down simply to whoever earns the most points. In the majority of pools, you earn more points for picking the correct champion, and champions are almost always No. 1 seeds. Since Virginia has not historically fared well deep in the tournament, you can make your life a lot easier and choose Duke, Gonzaga or North Carolina to win it all this year. 

Be Wary of No. 2 Seeds in the Second Round

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    No. 2 seeds, unsurprisingly, make it to the Final Four more frequently than any seed save for No. 1 seeds, with 28 appearances since 1985. 

    However, these teams also have a proven history of stumbling in the second round. 

    As Mike Rutherford of SB Nation points out, in 21 of the last 22 years, at least one No. 2 seed has failed to make it to the Sweet 16. It happened two years ago with Louisville and Duke, which were upset by seventh seeds Michigan and South Carolina, and last year with second seeds North Carolina and Cincinnati falling to Texas A&M and Nevada. 

    So how should you proceed? Give some serious thought to a No. 2 seed (Michigan, Michigan State, Tennessee or Kentucky) getting upset in this year's second round.

Put Your Trust in Balanced Teams

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    This year, there are some dominant offensive and defensive teams alike.

    But if the team you have your eye on is disproportionately dominant on one side of the ball, history shows it's probably not going to fare well in the NCAA tourney. 

    Let's briefly consider recent champions. Last year, Villanova ranked No. 1 in KenPom.com offensive efficiency and No. 11 in defensive efficiency. The year before that, North Carolina was No. 9 on offense and No. 11 on defense. In 2016, once again, Jay Wright's Villanova squad was balanced, ranking No. 3 on offense and No. 5 on defense. 

    Sensing a pattern? Balanced teams win championships; it's as simple as that. It can be incredibly tempting to back a team that blows others away in one metric, like defensive powerhouse VCU or offensive juggernaut Iowa. But those two teams are objectively poor on the other side of the ball, which doesn't give them much of a chance in this year's tourney. 

    If you want balanced teams for your upset picks, consider No. 9 UCF, No. 10 Minnesota or No. 10 Seton Hall, which can get the job done on both sides of the ball.